Underpaid and overlooked, migrant labor provides backbone of Maryland Eastern Shore’s local economy
Every summer, people flock to Maryland to eat blue crabs. Named for their brilliant sapphire-colored claws, blue crab is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay. The scientific name for blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, means “beautiful savory swimmer.”
In restaurants and at home, diners pile steamed and seasoned blue crabs in the middle of a table covered in paper. Then, using small mallets, knives, bare hands and fingers, they break open the hard shells and extract the juicy meat from inside.
It is a messy experience, especially with Old Bay seasoning and beer known locally as Natty Bohs, one that is quintessentially Maryland.
Though many people know firsthand how difficult it is to pick and clean crab meat, they often don’t realize how crab is processed when it is sold in stores already picked and cleaned. Most people also may not know that crab picking is a livelihood for many, mainly poor, women.
For generations, African American women from Maryland’s rural, maritime communities labored for crab houses on the Eastern Shore.
Today, fewer than 10 crab houses are left on the Shore. The workforce consists of mainly female migrant workers from Mexico who do the grueling job of picking crab for eight to nine hours a day, from late spring to early fall. They make on average of US$2.50 to $4.00 for every pound of crabmeat they pick.
That pay is roughly one-tenth to one-twelfth of the wholesale price of one pound – or about a half of a kilogram – of the seafood they pick, which is $35 to $44. In comparison, the Maryland minimum wage is $13.25 an hour, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25.
Rise of immigration in rural America
Over 2.1 million migrants and immigrants work in jobs growing and processing food in the United States, playing an essential role in feeding Americans.
Some rural counties, like Stewart County in Georgia and Franklin County in Alabama, have experienced growth rates of over 1,000% in their foreign-born population, which have boosted their local economies and mitigated rural population decline.
Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, for instance, has experienced a rapid rise in immigration since 2000. From 2010 to 2019, migration was the primary source of population growth, with the foreign-born population increasing by 90%.
Many immigrants come to this region to find work in agriculture, poultry and seafood processing. Some come directly from Mexico, Central America and Haiti.
Typically, farmworkers have temporary visas and arrive in late spring and early summer and stay through the growing season. Migrant Mexican women who work in crab processing also follow the same seasonal employment pattern. Others, like those working in poultry processing plants, have settled here more permanently, either as undocumented or permanent residents.
At risk of exploitation and injury
Immigrant workers in rural regions work dangerous jobs and are exposed to pollution, deplorable living conditions and limited safety training.
Additionally, immigrant workers are among the lowest paid and lack access to health information, preventive care and medical treatment. Dry skin, cuts, scrapes, rashes, chronic pain and broken bones are common among immigrants who work in agriculture, poultry and seafood processing.
These workers also suffer from numerous invisible injuries such as discrimination, verbal harassment and physical exploitation.
Challenges to rural health
Despite the daily risk of harm, migrant workers in rural regions have limited access to health care and rely on mobile clinics, local health departments and community health centers.
But these facilities are not equipped to handle specialty care or emergencies. Nor are many of them easily accessible due to location or hours of operation. In addition, many workers cannot afford to miss work or are afraid to tell their supervisors that they need care.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the notion of “essential” workers became part of the nation’s vocabulary as a way to describe people required to continue in-person work under lockdown conditions. They included food industry workers.
It also revealed how policies enacted during the pandemic to protect public health and essential workers did little to prevent people from working in dangerous workplace conditions without adequate safeguards.
But despite evidence that close to 2.5 million foreign-born people live and work in rural America, very little information exists on these people’s health.
This inattention by lawmakers is harmful and dangerous because it leaves health care providers and social workers with little understanding of immigrant experiences in small towns and sparsely populated rural communities.
Thurka Sangaramoorthy receives funding from The National Institutes of Health.
Phil Scott vetoes noncitizen voting in Burlington and voting for 16- and 17-year-olds in Brattleboro
Gov. Phil Scott struck down two measures on Saturday that would expand voting rights in local communities.
He vetoed H.509, a charter change approved by Burlington voters that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. And, for the second year in a row, he rejected a charter change that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds in Brattleboro to cast ballots in local elections.
In doing so, the governor added two more bills — plus the budget — to legislators’ checklist to reconsider during their June veto session.
Thanks to Dillon’s Rule, municipalities must earn the blessing of state lawmakers in order to make such amendments to their charters, no matter how widespread their local support.
In explaining his veto of noncitizen voting in Burlington, Scott harked back to his vetoes of similar measures in Montpelier and Winooski in 2021, stating that, “this highly variable town-by-town approach to municipal election policy creates separate and unequal classes of legal residents potentially eligible to vote on local voting issues.”
“I am happy to see legal residents who are non-citizens calling Vermont home and participating in the issues affecting their communities,” Scott said in his statement Saturday. “However, the fundamentals of voting should be universal and implemented statewide.”
Both the Montpelier and Winooski measures made it into law with a veto override — suggesting Burlington’s charter change could follow the same path.
Also on Saturday, Scott allowed H.508, which will expand ranked choice voting in Burlington local election, to take effect without his signature. Already in place for Burlington City Council elections, ranked choice voting will now also apply to mayoral, school board and ward officer races.
In a statement, Scott expressed skepticism about the voting method but, citing the limited scope of the change, said he would still allow it to become law. “As we know, ranked choice voting went terribly wrong over a decade ago, resulting in Burlington abandoning the practice. Nevertheless, it appears the politics have changed in the City, for now, in favor of ranked choice voting,” Scott said, adding that he remains opposed to ranked choice voting at the statewide level.
This year marks Brattleboro’s second attempt at amending its charter in order to lower its local voting age. Proponents of H.386 argue that the move would get Brattleboro’s teens engaged at a younger age, educating them on the civic responsibility of voting and empowering them with a voice in their local community.
Scott disagreed. In a Saturday statement, he repeated his argument from last year — that the bill exacerbates an inconsistency in state law when it comes to defining the age of adulthood. “For example, the Legislature has repeatedly raised the age of accountability to reduce the consequences when young adults commit criminal offenses,” Scott said. “They have argued this approach is justified because these offenders are not mature enough to contemplate the full range of risks and impacts of their actions.”
If this year’s floor votes are any indication, the Senate could be the ultimate decider in whether H.386 goes into effect — potentially setting Brattleboro voters up for a repeat of last year’s failed override attempt in the upper chamber.
A two-thirds majority of lawmakers present is required to override a gubernatorial veto. With all members present, such a move requires 100 yeas in the House, and 20 in the Senate.
The House voted 103-33 on the bill in April. But in the Senate, the floor votes were 16-8, followed by 18-10. When the latter vote was cast on May 9, two senators were absent: Sen. Dave Weeks, R-Rutland, and Sen. Irene Wrenner, D-Chittenden North. In order to override Scott’s veto come June, both would need to vote yes — or senators who previously voted against the bill would need to change their tune.
Should the override attempt fail in the Senate, Brattleboro’s charter change would face the same fate as it did last year, when the veto override attempt succeeded in the House but failed in the Senate.
Border Patrol agents kill tribal member on Tohono O’odham Nation
A member of the Tohono O’odham Nation was shot and killed in front of his home by U.S. Border Patrol agents Thursday night. Raymond Mattia was fired at 38 times, family members said.
ICE aumenta las repatriaciones
El ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) continuó este viernes 12 de mayo, el envío de múltiples vuelos con varias personas repatriadas a Colombia, El Salvador y Honduras, como parte de las docenas de vuelos enviados cada semana. El pasado 24 de abril, ICE reanudó el proceso de deportación de ciudadanos cubanos que han recibido órdenes finales de deportación
Según el comunicado de ICE, […] las deportaciones hacen parte de la política que hace mucho tiempo atrás se usa para expulsar a los ciudadanos extranjeros que carecen de una base legal para permanecer en los Estados Unidos. Esta política se aplica a todos los no ciudadanos independientemente de su nacionalidad.
La oficina de ICE Air Operations facilita la transferencia y remocion de no ciudadanos via aerolineas comerciales o vuelos charter para apoyar las operaciones de ICE y DHS.
Según los reportes de ERO en el 2022, se repatriaron a 72.177 personas a 150 países.
Por ahora los países se preparan con albergues para recibir a los cientos de ciudadanos que se pronostica llegarán en las próximas semanas. En Colombia el pasado 10 de mayo el aeropuerto de El Dorado recibió 209 migrantes, y la Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia anunció que dará el acompañamiento necesario para estos repatriados.
Algunos retornados a Guatemala manifestaron a Univisión 247 que por la situación actual que se vive en USA, no intentarán regresar a USA. Stuard Rodriguez, director de Migración en Guatemala, reportó la entrada de 100 menores de edad, que migraron con falsas ideas sobre el ingreso fácil a USA.
MIWISCONSIN estará entrevistando a miembros de la comunidad y organizaciones que trabajan de cerca con el tema migratorio. Si usted ve cambio en el color de nuestro logo a azul será una alerta para la comunidad.
In bankruptcy’s wake, a Minnesota meatpacking plant’s visa workers face an uncertain future
Four days after HyLife Foods filed its bankruptcy paperwork, workers anxiously awaited answers from management about its plans for the pork processing plant.
The employees gathered in the plant’s cafeteria before their shifts on May 1 to listen to an executive read a list of what appeared to be frequently asked questions and corresponding answers about the company’s financial situation.
HyLife announced in early April that if it can’t sell the plant, it anticipated laying off the 1,007-person workforce by June 2. An end date has not been set, the company told Investigate Midwest on May 10.
About half of the plant’s workers are employed through a temporary visa program, and if the plant closes, they will have few options outside of immediate return to their home countries.
Many want to continue living and working in the U.S. in order to support families in their home countries, where wages are much lower.
If the company is successful in selling the plant, the buyer could choose to retain the current workforce, the executive explained during the staff meeting, according to four HyLife employees who were in attendance that day.
Around 500 HyLife workers are employed through the H-2B visa program, which allows companies to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when there aren’t enough Americans to fill the company’s needs, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.
H-2B visas are valid for one year at a time but can be renewed annually for up to three years. The employees interviewed by Investigate Midwest all said HyLife promised to employ them for three years.
The employees requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by HyLife and to protect their future job prospects.
HyLife currently employs more H-2B workers than any other meatpacking plant in the country — twice as many as the next-biggest H-2B employer in the industry, according to the DOL data.
If the plant closes, the visas will be immediately terminated and HyLife will have 10 days to return the hundreds of H-2B workers to their home countries.
“We acknowledge this is a challenging situation for our employees and the Windom community,” HyLife CEO Grant Lazaruk said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest. “In an effort to be transparent, we have shared numerous updates with our team on the plant sale process. Our goal remains to find a buyer so that operations may continue under new ownership.”
H-2B visas cannot be transferred to another employer. Few options exist that would allow the workers to stay in the U.S. legally, and each of the potential legal paths come with strict eligibility requirements and some downsides.
Employees told Investigate Midwest they’re worried about what will happen if the plant closes. In addition to supporting themselves in Minnesota, many send money home to their families.
“Many of us are paying off cars, or we signed leases” in the U.S., an employee said in Spanish. “We don’t know what will happen with the company. We can’t call the bank and say, ‘Wait for me because the company is out of money.’”
One employee said he came to the U.S. to support his daughter through university. Another said he started working at HyLife in order to purchase a house for his family back home.
HyLife, based in Manitoba, Canada, is Canada’s largest pork producer, according to the company’s website. Charoen Pokphand Group, a Thai holding company, has held a majority stake in HyLife since 2019.
Fewer than 5,000 people live in Windom, located in the southwest corner of Minnesota.
When the executive finished reading the prepared statements — including an announcement of reduced hours — to the group of employees in the cafeteria, he left, the four attendees said. Some workers protested, saying they still had unanswered questions, workers told Investigate Midwest. Most stayed in the cafeteria instead of leaving to prepare for their shifts.
The executive returned to the cafeteria. One employee started recording, sensing the rising tensions in the room, he said.
The executive told employees to get to work immediately or be fired. If the H2-B workers didn’t go to their shifts, he said, they would be sent home.
In a video clip reviewed by Investigate Midwest, the executive’s interpreter repeated his words in Spanish.
“…they’re going to fire you,” the interpreter said. “Those with H-2B, what does that mean? Return to Mexico.”
The crowd grew noisy in response. Some workers shouted and some whistled. Others quickly headed for the door.
“That’s a threat,” multiple women said in Spanish in the background of the video.
The employee who recorded the video requested that it not be published because it could identify him and put his job at risk. Investigate Midwest provided HyLife a detailed description of the events of the May 1 meeting based on the video and interviews with four employees who were in attendance.
In statements provided to Investigate Midwest, HyLife did not answer questions about the May 1 meeting.
“As you can appreciate, having full context matters, and it is difficult to comment on a video Investigate Midwest refuses to share,” the company said in a May 10 statement.
The four attendees said they left the meeting with unanswered questions.
“People were a little angry because they aren’t sticking to the hours they promised us,” one employee told Investigate Midwest in Spanish. “And to talk to the people like that…it was like we were animals or something. It’s like they were making a threat against us.”
Few options for those wanting to remain in U.S.
In a church basement in downtown Mankato on May 7, HyLife workers with H-2B visas gathered to learn about the immigration options available to them.
Organizers had estimated around 100 people would attend. By the end of the meeting, more than 250 sat in folding chairs, leaned against the walls or watched through open doorways. Several tended to infants during the three-hour gathering.
HyLife employees organized the meeting with support from Unidos MN, a nonprofit organization advocating for social and economic equity for Latinx families in Minnesota.
Over Zoom, an immigration lawyer answered questions and outlined the paths available to the employees, if they wanted to continue living and working in the U.S. in the event that the plant closes.
“You could feel the tension, you could feel the desperation,” said Rayito Hernandez, lead organizer of Unidos MN, who participated in the meeting. “They were like, ‘We want an answer.’”
Some workers also addressed Minnesota State Rep. Luke Frederick, a member of the state’s Democratic party, and whose district includes the city of Mankato, where many workers live.
Frederick told Investigate Midwest that some of the current state legislature’s initiatives, such as issuing driver’s licenses regardless of an individual’s immigration status and expanding paid family leave, benefit H-2B workers in Minnesota.
But the core issue is one of federal immigration law.
“What can we do at the state?” Frederick said. “That’s the question I’ve been asking.”
HyLife said it is following Labor Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service frameworks.
“If the plant closes before our H-2B work authorization ends, we are prepared to help (H-2B workers) identify possible employment options,” the company said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest. “If opportunities are unavailable, HyLife will provide transportation for a safe return home.”
If the plant closes but the employees want to continue working in the U.S. on an H-2B visa, they may need to return to their home country and reapply for the program, according to federal immigration law.
There is a possibility for workers to obtain another H-2B job in the U.S. without returning to their home countries, said attorney Erin Schutte Wadzinski, co-owner of Kivu Immigration Law Firm in Worthington, Minnesota, which hosted a separate legal clinic for HyLife workers on April 29. The prospective employer would need to already have a Temporary Employment Certification from the Department of Homeland Security, have open H-2B positions and submit the new employee’s H-2B paperwork before the existing visa expires.
“There is no obvious pathway that is available for everyone,” Schutte Wadzinski said. “Some individuals might be eligible for family petitions. Other individuals are genuinely fearful of returning to their home country and wish to seek asylum in the United States.”
Being granted asylum would permit an individual to live and work in the U.S. In order to qualify for asylum, the person must prove that they are subject to persecution in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a specific social group.
During the asylum application process, and after asylum is granted, petitioners can’t visit their home countries. (H-2B visas allow the workers to travel internationally. Hourly HyLife employees employed for less than five years receive 15 vacation and personal days, according to a 2022 copy of the plant’s employee handbook.)
Family visas require sponsorship by an immediate relative, like a parent, spouse or adult child who is a citizen of the U.S.
There are other visas available — for victims of human trafficking or crimes that take place in the U.S. Applicants have to weigh the pros against the cost, processing times and international travel restrictions of each option.
Nonresidents who can prove they were victims of or witnesses to violations of labor rights can also request deferred action from the DHS. Deferred action allows non-resident immigrants to temporarily live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
Tensions rise as potential plant closure looms
On April 10, in compliance with federal regulations, HyLife Foods sent a letter to the state government informing officials — and its employees — that the company would have to lay off its workforce if the company didn’t find a buyer.
Two and a half weeks later, the company filed for bankruptcy.
“On April 27, 2023, Windom entered Chapter 11, a formal court-supervised process, for our production plant in Minnesota,” HyLife president and CEO Lazaruk said in an April 27 statement provided to Investigate Midwest. “This helps us to move forward with our restructuring plan while we pursue a potential sale, so that the plant can continue under new ownership.”
The executive reiterated that the company was still seeking a buyer at the May 1 employee meeting, four workers told Investigate Midwest.
“We are still actively seeking a buyer,” HyLife said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest on May 10. “An end date for Windom has not been set. We continue communicating with our team and will give additional updates as more details become available.”
As of May 12, the company had not announced a sale.
HyLife said it has reduced the scheduled work hours for employees by 25%, the maximum allowable under H-2B visa regulations, because the plant is processing fewer hogs.
“We understand this personally impacts our employees and have shared additional Minnesota Unemployment Insurance resources to help support individuals exploring top-up options,” the company said in its statement.
Many non-H-2B employees have already left for other jobs, employees said, leaving the rest of the workforce short-staffed. Work has become more difficult in recent weeks due to the departures, they said.
One employee said he’d had to move to different positions in the plant multiple times recently, including working in the slaughter area for the first time, where the smell of the pig blood and excrement makes him nauseous, he said.
Conflicts are increasing among coworkers and between workers and their supervisors, the employee said.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” he said in Spanish.
Because their visas aren’t transferable to other workplaces, and they don’t have jobs lined up in their home countries, three employees who spoke to Investigate Midwest said they plan to work at HyLife until their visas expire.
“Life must go on,” one employee said. “Until the last day of the plant, we will still be here and we will still continue to work.”
Border towns see ‘disaster’ without federal help as end to Title 42 looms
Arizona border communities face a “humanitarian disaster” in two weeks if the federal government does not step in to help with the crush of migrants expected when Title 42 ends, officials from Pima County, Yuma and Sierra Vista told a Senate panel Wednesday.